Q & A with John Stack, Author of Ship of Rome
Why did you decide to write a historical fiction for your debut novel?
The first novels I read were historical novels which I loved. When the Lion Feeds by Wilbur Smith and Shogun by James Clavell are among my first favourites. Im a big fan of history, in particular military history, but when I read an academic historical book I often find that they deal with primarily with the commanders of the particular period and their decisions and tactics. Im more interested in the ordinary foot-soldiers, trying to imagine what the conditions were like for them and what compelled them to fight. Writing historical novels is a great way to explore these themes, to see history through the eyes of forgotten men, to relive their triumphs and failures and explore how ordinary men do extraordinary things to shape the course of history and the destiny of empires.
What made you chose Rome and this period of Roman history?
I have a BA in Italian and so have a real interest in Italian history, both ancient and modern. The Roman period is full of fascinating characters and history-shaping events and although we know so much, there are also large periods that are overlooked. The first Punic war between Rome and Carthage is one of these periods.
The story of the early stages of the first Punic War was a great opportunity to explore the theme of how forgotten men shaped history. The Carthaginians had developed an impressive navy over many generations and although the Romans still held the advantage on land their navy was all but non-existent, a coastal fleet used only for pirate hunting. With the Carthaginians controlling the sea-lanes, Sicily was out of Romes reach.
That all changed with the introduction of the corvus boarding ramp, a simple yet brilliant device that allowed the Romans to deploy land-trained troops at sea. It was an invention that ultimately decided the early stages of the war and allowed the Romans to build up their experience to a point where they could challenge the Carthaginians on the high-seas. For all its importance however, the inventor of the corvus is not recorded, although any theories I have found point to ordinary, socially insignificant men. This man, this forgotten soldier or sailor, in essence saved Romes campaign on Sicily at a time when the Carthaginian navy should have swept the Roman navy from the seas.
Where do you write? Do you have any bad habits?
I generally write in my car, sitting in the front passenger seat with my laptop on my knees. I have three small children so peace and quiet have long since been banished from the house. Normally I drive to a quiet car park, if possible over-looking the water, (I live in Cork which has one of the worlds largest natural harbours), power up the laptop and pray for inspiration! My target each day is 1,000 words. Some days I get there, others days not, depending on whether I need to spend time on research or developing the overall plot. I wrote Ship of Rome sequentially, from the first line of chapter one all the way through and I find it impossible to leave a section unfinished before progressing. Its a really bad habit because I sometimes spend hours stuck on one line, or paragraph, trying to get it right, unable to simply skip it and revisit it later.
My biggest bad habit however is a tendency to go off on tangents when I am researching a historical point. Most of the reference books I use cover all three Punic wars, and it is easy to get lost in one of the major battles of the subsequent wars. I have to leave all my books at home and out of my car to ensure that when I write I can stay on track!
Has the sea always interested you?
Yes, I grew up in the coastal town, Youghal, which has an active fishing port and a five mile beach. The town has strong historical connections to the sea. Vikings are believed to have used the port as a base of operations, the explorer and privateer Sir Walter Raleigh had a home there and the town was used as a backdrop for the 1956 movie Moby Dick.
Living so close to the sea, in a town where around every corner there are historical reminders of the seas importance, it is impossible to separate the sea from my identity.
What or who inspired the character of the sea captain? Were you always going to make him an outsider?
The character of Atticus is largely shaped by the historical events in the book. Initially I saw him as an experienced and respected captain, a strong character. From that base I shaped Atticuss character as the story progressed, moulding it every time he was challenged or was exposed to something new, allowing events to shape his life.
At the time the book is set the Roman Republic was expanding aggressively, assimilating provinces and their people within single generations. It was this diversity within their borders that gave Rome strength, in this case the naval expertise of a non-Roman, and I enjoyed writing Atticus from that perspective.
Finally I believe people have an affinity with outsiders because many of us have felt like an outsider at least once in our lives and we never forget that sense of isolation and insecurity.
Atticus and his friend Septimus have a very complicated friendship. Was this enjoyable to write?
Very much so. Rome was five hundred years old by the time Atticus sees it for the first time. It was a very traditional society, religious and hierarchical and Septimus embodies many of those qualities. Atticus also comes from an ancient society and a city with traditions created over generations, albeit very different to Roman society.
On the surface therefore the two men are dissimilar and I enjoyed exploring how their working relationship and ultimately their friendship is shaped by their diverse backgrounds. Even the common ground they share was arrived at differently. Atticus chose to fight in the navy whereas Septimus followed his fathers path into the legions without question.
They are both men of tradition but it is their flight from those traditions, Atticus from a fisherman to a military captain and Septimus from a legionnaire to a marine that also complicates their friendship as each has to come to terms with their path in life while each man is continually shaping the life of the other, drawing each other into their respective worlds.
Did you find the battle scenes hard to write? Do you envisage them while you are writing or do you have any helpful assistance from video games or Risk?
I love writing the battle scenes. I begin with just the bare bones of the sequence in my mind, who will survive, which side will prevail, but once I start writing the scene the battles always take on a life of their own, the individual contests, the pivotal moments that decide the outcome. As the battle intensifies I always find I cant type fast enough to keep up with the action!
Are any of your characters real figures from history? If so, which ones? Do you prefer to write real or imaginary characters?
Hannibal Gisco, Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio Asina, Gaius Duilius and Hamilcar Barca are all real historical characters although Gisco and Barca never served together, (Barca commanded the Carthaginians over ten years after Giscos death). Scipio was captured at Lipara and the other consul that year, Duilius, led the Romans at Mylae. Aside from these career highlights, where their ambitions interacted directly with the war, there are few historical details regarding these characters, (although more is known about Hamilcar as he was Hannibal Barcas father). I love the opportunity therefore to explore the motives and aspirations of these men in the context of the historical record, moulding these characters around actual events in their lives.
I dont have a particular preference in writing real or imaginary characters. The imaginary characters, in particular Atticus and Septimus, are written against the same historical backdrop and while there is, I believe, greater scope to explore some of the themes I am interested in, such as historys forgotten heroes, I am conscious of keeping them as anonymous in the story as they were in history.
How do you do your research? How important is this to the finished book?
I stick mainly to the academic texts of scholars who have studied the subject in detail. The older books require some discipline to read as they can be quiet turgid but I find contemporary historical academic writers use a more narrative approach and are therefore easier to study.
Historical accuracy is very important to me. Sometimes the narrative requires a little twisting of the facts but I always endeavour to keep as close to the historical record as possible.
Do you read other historical novels? Do you have a favourite book?
Ive always been a big fan of historical novels and my favourite is Shogun by James Clavell. Its a massive book, with dozens upon dozens of characters and Clavell creates a really impressive insight into Japanese culture of the late 16th century.
My favourite book outside of historical novels is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. I read it for the first time over ten years ago, have read it countless times since and every time I read it I am left re-examining my understanding of the book and its characters.
If you could live in one period in history which would it be?
Many of the historical moments we witness today effect the entire world, whether it be the fall of communism or the 9/11 attacks, and Ireland, like many other countries is effected both directly and indirectly by such events.
Ive always wanted to live at a time however when history irrevocably changed my country during a single lifetime, when events transpired so quickly that a single person could bear witness to the entire change. For me a pivotal moment in Irish history was its war of independence from the British Empire and its subsequent civil war. It was a time of great change and social upheaval in Ireland, when the events that affected the nation also impacted on every family, creating alliances and dividing lines that lasted generations. I would like to have witnessed and been part of those changes, not perhaps on the greater political stage but as one of the forgotten men whose actions changed the course of Irish history.